Nationalism was in short supply when the Indian Navy tried to find a private or government partner to convert INS Vikrant into a maritime museum.
Commissioned as India’s first aircraft carrier way back in 1961, the Majestic Class ship clocked 499,066 nautical miles, equivalent to almost 15 times around the world, before it was taken off active service in 1997.
This was the ship, that less than a year after its induction, was deployed off the coast of Goa for a possible amphibious assault and to deter any foreign intervention while Indian forces liberated the Portuguese enclave in December 1961.
This was the ship that blockaded and bombed the ports of East Pakistan from the Bay of Bengal during the 1971 war, ensuring that that not a single Pakistani ship could leave or enter Chittagong or other ports. All this with a cracked boiler.
When it was finally decommissioned, the Maharashtra government and the Indian Navy half-heartedly ran it as a Naval Dockyard Museum, berthed off the Naval Dockyard at Apollo Bunder, till 2012, when it declared it unsafe and decided to sell it as scrap.
A PIL filed against that decision by a concerned citizen went up all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2014 that since no one was willing to put up the 200-odd crore rupees needed to refurbish the ship, it could be sold.
The ancient aircraft and other salvageable parts, including diver suits, weapons and munitions, can now be found scattered across museums like the Maritime History Society of Mumbai and Naval Aviation museum in Goa. The ship itself was sold for Rs 60 crores, and now rests in pieces -as scrap metal.
Very few nations in the world own and operate aircraft carriers. The sheer cost and logistical requirements (a Carrier always operates as a Group, with other ships, submarines, aircraft and satellites needed for support and protection) ensured that many nations (like Australia and Canada) never went for new ones after the ones they ran were decommissioned.
Those that operate more than one carrier (the US operates 19) can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
India is one of them.
One of the two Indian ships, however, the ancient and venerableINS Viraat was pulled off active service after the International Fleet Review off the coast of Vishakhapatnam in February 2016.
The oldest carrier in service in the world, it was built in 1959 in the UK as the Royal Navy’s HMS Hermes, and deployed in faraway South America during the Falklands War in 1982. Decommissioned in 1985, she was bought by India, totally refitted and refurbished at the Devonport dockyard renamed and joined the Indian Navy as its second carrier in 1987. (the other at the time was INS Vikrant)
INS Viraat is expected to be sold to the government of Andhra Pradesh, which apparently wants to turn it into a luxury floating hotel.
And then there’s the INS Vikramaditya, a massive 22-deck floating airfield, larger than three football fields put together, and higher than a 20 storey building.
Built by the Soviet Union as a hybrid carrier in 1987, it was renamed Admiral Gorshkov when it was transferred into the Russian Navy in 1991, and then shelved due to the operational costs. In 2004, Moscow and New Delhi signed a deal under which the carrier would be totally refitted and converted into a regular full-fledged carrier. After massive cost and time overruns, it was finally inducted into the Indian Navy as INS Vikramaditya in June 2014.
Though India has been operating carriers for over half a century now, they were all refurbished foreign vessels.
That has changed with the new Vikrant, now in an advanced stage of construction at the Cochin Dockyard.
Expected to be commissioned in 2018, this ship will among the five or six carriers that the Indian Navy eventually proposes to build and wield, including one in reserve. This excludes the four helicopter carriers which India proposes to buy soon.
The second ship, INS Vishal, is likely to be the first supercarrier (displacing over 64,000 metric tonnes) built in India.
Currently in the design stages, there are murmurs that it might be nuclear powered. In July last year, Jane’s reported that Letters of Request for help with the design have already gone out to at least four international shipbuilders, including DCNS of France, Lockheed Martin (US); BAE Systems (UK) and Russia’s Rosoboronexport.
There are few things more intimidating than the sight of a carrier group steaming towards you over the horizon.
But why does India, traditionally a defensive power, require so many aircraft carriers, which are essentially meant to project power far from home?
One answer could be that as India’s economy grows exponentially, it needs to protect the sea lanes which bring in its energy requirements from across the world.
The second lies in India’s constant attempt since Independence to be seen a major power, deserving of a seat at the world’s top table.
The third reason is the rapid advances in China’s Naval might and what is seen as Beijing’s attempts to limit India to a regional power through its string of pearls, or ports dotting the Indian Ocean and East Africa which permit Chinese ships to dock and refuel. A Chinese aircraft carrier docked in Colombo, for instance, would have most of southern India within its missile range. Recent Chinese remarks that the Bay of Bengal is not an ‘Indian pond’ have further fuelled this fear.
In January 2015, during US President Barack Obama’s visit to India, the two nations agreed to “form a working group to explore aircraft carrier technology sharing and design.”
The US, however, is keen to take the relationship from a purely ‘transactional’ one --where India buys specific technologies like the electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), which allows the launch of heavier aircraft from a carrier – to a strategic one, wherein India plays a key role in America’s Pacific Pivot, aimed at balancing China’s growing clout in the region.
In a lengthy paper titled ‘Making-Waves-Aiding-India’s Next Generation aircraft carrier” , Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, makes a passionate case joint building of such vessels, and even having US aircraft on board.
Not to be outdone, the Russians have released several media trial balloons, saying its new multi-purpose heavy aircraft carrier design called Project 23000E Shtorm (Storm) was a front runner in the bid to design India’s supercarrier.
According to the newspaper Izvestia, “The design has a displacement of up to 100,000 tons, is 330 meters long, 40 meters wide, and has a draft of 11 meters. It has a nuclear power plant, although initial plans state a conventional one may also be used. The ship is designed to sail at up to 30 knots (around 55 km/h) and withstand sea state 6-7 (characterized by waves up to 9 meters high).”
“At present, only Moscow is ready to share with New Delhi both weapons and other systems, on the one hand, and their development and manufacturing technologies, on the other,” The article quoted a Russian naval analyst as saying. Besides, “the Russian design dovetails with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India concept,” he said.
‘Such competition is only good for us,’ grins a senior Indian Naval officer. While accepting that ‘political considerations’ would play a large part in who the supercarrier design contract finally went to, ‘what really matters is that the Indian Navy is getting some much-needed muscle.’
As for the original Vikrant, in February 2016, Bajaj Auto launched a 150 cc motorcycle model called V. The V stands for Vikrant, because the metal used for the bike comes from the ship which proudly ruled the waves for over 4 decades.
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